It was another early start on Day 9 of the Rimu tour. Okarito looked like an ideal place to spend a day lounging around and chillaxing. However, the more ambitious members of our group assembled down by the wharf at 8:00 am for a three-hour self-guided kayak tour of the Okarito lagoon and river system.
The sea kayaks were pretty similar to our Milford Sound rigs – yellow two-seaters with foot-operated rudders. We were given a basic safety briefing and orientation session, then we were outfitted with spray skirts and life jackets. The local waters were substantially shallower (and warmer) than Milford Sound, and there would definitely be no cruise ships to avoid, so the briefing was pretty laid back.
We were getting an early start because Okarito lagoon is a tidal estuary. When we first dipped our paddles in the water and set off from the wharf, the tide was still rising and filling the lagoon. Travelling with the tidal current was like having a small trolling motor to push us along. We would pay for this luxury later.
We followed a series of channels into the lagoon, quietly slipping past plenty of shags and gulls and a few magnificent white herons. After paddling around the lower half of the lagoon for about an hour, we embarked on a journey up the Okarito River. On this day, I had elected to take the back seat position while Danny provided propulsion up front. We turned out to be a pretty good team – Danny was eager to row and helped point out obstacles ahead. I focused on steering and managed to keep us from running into any fallen trees or shallow sandbars. Cathy was at the helm of Betsy’s kayak, with the team of Cam and Bil right behind them. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, despite the sneezing and wheezing going on amongst most of our crew (me included). We nicknamed this particularly viral chest cold “the Ann-Slam” in honour of Patient Zero.
Our kayaks only needed about 30 centimetres of draft to stay afloat, but eventually we reached a point in the river that was shallow enough to require a portage. We hopped out of our boat and tugged it across some extremely slippery stones. I avoided making a big splash, but just barely. Danny particularly seemed to enjoy the cold water; his ankles were still swollen from the previous day’s walk and cold feet suited him just fine. After we made it back into navigable waters, Danny graciously helped to tow a few other kayaks across the portage while I snapped some photographs. Danny and I led the way upriver to a scenic arched bridge, which was our suggested turnaround point. The portage on the way back out seemed shorter than just 45 minutes earlier, testament to how quickly waters can rise in a tidal area.
The biggest challenge came from rowing against the tide in order to get back to the wharf. The tour company guide had suggested following some side-channels through the weeds to minimize the current, and they certainly helped. But once we got back onto the lagoon proper, we immediately noticed the current dragging on our bow. A stiff sea breeze in our faces wasn’t helping the situation, either.
With a couple of kilometres left to go, Danny and I focused on rowing strongly and efficiently. We took long strokes, and tried to stay synchronized. After about fifteen minutes of this pectoral workout, I set down my paddle long enough to snap a few photos of the rainforest overhanging the shoreline. I thought we had been making pretty good progress against the current, but when Danny set his paddle down for a second to take a drink of water I noticed the trees on the shoreline change direction. Instead of us moving past the trees, the trees were passing us. The current was pushing us backwards! Rest time would evidently have to wait for the end of the journey.
Fifteen minutes later, Danny and I were the first kayak to pull up to the wharf. I took a seat at a picnic table while some of our compatriots finished their trips. I was reminded why it’s important on any journey (kayak, hike, or bike) to periodically turn around to enjoy a different perspective. The Southern Alps, the misty clouds and the rainforest perfectly framed this photo of Betsy and Cathy as they rowed into view.
Most of our tour group had a free afternoon to loiter around Okarito. Five of us thankfully had a second chance to make the Franz Josef Glacier heli-hike. We drove back into town, and this time we were in luck. Thick clouds were obscuring the top reaches of the glacier, but the usual helicopter landing spot on the glacier was below the cloud deck so we were good to go! We got changed into warm boots and waterproof coats, then walked to the helicopter launch pad.
With family and friends all over North America, I’ve flown on plenty of commercial jets. I occasionally get to fly on a 9-seat corporate jet for work, and I’ve even made a couple of flights on a float plane. But this was my first-ever helicopter flight, and it was a completely new experience. Six of us buckled in next to the pilot and put on our headsets. The pilot pulled back on the control stick, and we rose straight up into the air. When the pilot dipped the nose, we started flying forward over the treetops towards the glacier. It was a unique and invigorating way to fly through spectacular scenery.
The helicopter set us down partway up the glacier, where two ice guides greeted us. Two more helicopters arrived in turn, depositing about sixteen adventurers for a tour of the glacier. We strapped crampons onto our boots before splitting into two groups of eight for a two-hour hike on Franz Josef Glacier.
Cliff was my group’s ice guide, and once he ascertained that we were all pretty agile in crampons he led us up the glacier towards an icefall. He explained that Franz Josef is one of the fastest flowing glaciers in the world, sometimes moving several metres per day. As such, the scenery is constantly evolving. Cliff was an experienced guide, and took us to many very cool looking ice formations and tunnels. From time to time, he would stop and look around to see which of the massive ice chunks looked primed to collapse. He did his best to show us the coolest spots without putting us in danger, occasionally chopping some new steps into the ice with his trusty axe. This photo of Cliff and I puts the size of the ice formations in context.
Since we were visiting on a cloudy day, the gorgeous blue colour of the compressed ice was especially prominent. The glacier was perforated by tunnels where melting water disappeared into the ice, providing lubrication for the ice sheet as it ground over the underlying stone. Cliff showed us some examples of tunnels that for one reason or another had gone dry. Some were large enough for us to crawl through. Other tunnels were smaller but just as photogenic. This nearly vertical tunnel was fascinating to examine from below.
We eventually looped around to the helipad for the flight back to base, but I could have spent a few more hours exploring the glacier. After confidently striding up and down 30-degree inclines, I made a mental note to buy some crampons for winter hikes back home in the Rockies. I normally prefer the old-fashioned approach of walking through the backcountry to go sightseeing, but now I completely understand the appeal of helicopter tourism. Our heli-hike on Franz Josef Glacier was an unforgettable, supernatural experience that was worth every penny.
Back in Okarito, we were treated to a wonderful lamb dinner that Nat had obviously spent most of the day preparing for us. I had many new stories and photos from the glacier hike to share with my buddies, most of whom had spent the afternoon napping to recharge their batteries. I was exhausted from all of the day’s activities, but I saved just enough energy to watch another sunset down at the beach. From rowing a kayak through a salt-water rainforest, to hiking among ice formations larger than my house, to watching the sun splash into the Tasman Sea, it had been another life-affirming day.
Song of the Day: “Lady on the Water” by Blitzen Trapper